Zen Japanese’s Veggie Sushi is Anything But A Bore

With composting, carbon neutral-eating and veg-forward dining dominating the annual “New Years food trend” lists, we’ve never had more reasons to eat plants. Lucky for Vancouverites, options are abundant. At the vast majority of our city’s restaurants, there are veg choices…good ones!

Over the break, I had the pleasure of dining at 20-year-old Zen Japanese, where the vegetarian maki sushi options are not ubiquitous, they are inspired, unique and rich with flavour.

Read the full article over at metronews.ca here and continue on to read my interview with Zen Chef Nobu Ochi.

Q: Nobu, what is your secret to making such fresh and crispy tempura? It’s amazing.

Nobu says: Our secret to making crisp yam tempura for rolls is slicing the yam on a diagonal and thin. Use light batter. This technique is also applied to the kabocha.

Q: How did Sarah MacLachlan end up naming one of your menu’s rolls?

Nobu says: I’ve known Sarah since the beginning of her career on the West Coast. One sunny Saturday way way back, Sarah was walking on the seawall in West Van and had a craving for yam tempura and mangos. She came to Zen and mentioned her cravings. I thought that would be a great combo in a roll. I created what she named the Seawall Roll.

Q: What are three things we should all know about Zen?

Nobu says: 1) We just reached our 20 year anniversary last November, 2) We’re the first Japanese sushi restaurant in Vancouver to be Ocean Wise in 2009, 3) We can accommodate many dietary/allergy restrictions (we make gluten free sauces like tempura, teriyaki, house-made hot sauce, gluten free tempura).

Q: Where did you grow up?

Nobu says: Born in Kyoto, Japan, but grew up in Vancouver.

Q: Where did you work before you opened Zen?

Nobu says: I helped out in many small mom & pop Japanese restaurants while attending school, then became right hand man to Tojo-San for five years. I then quit the restaurant life all together to go back to school and become a computer programmer. Then one day got a call from a friend who worked at Zen asking if I could help them out while the head chef went on vacation. He never returned and the rest is history.

Q: Any other celeb customers you can share?

Nobu says: We get a lot of celebs since Lions Gate Studios are so close by. Of course there’s Sarah Mclachlan, Diana Krall, Elvis Costello, Michael Buble, Vicki Gabereau, Fanny Keefer and a lot of TV/movie stars who are in town. They enjoy dining with us because we’re not located downtown.

Q: How about that time you catered for U2?

Nobu says: I use to be a local roadie for concert productions so we cater to a lot of artists in the music industry. One of our biggest off-site jobs was for U2 during their 360 tour. We transformed Bar None into a walk up sushi bar with an ice carving of 360’s tour logo martini luge.

Q: Any other “veg must tries” on your menu?

Nobu says: Ankake Stuffed Tofu: a large square block of tofu that has been hollowed out and stuffed with sautéed vegetables and Japanese mushrooms then cooked like an agedashi tofu. It’s then covered with a sauce of vegetables in a Shiitake mushroom jus then topped with crispy yam chips. In your words…it’s-to-die-for.

Q: What would you say makes you one of Vancouver’s’s best sushi restaurants?

Nobu says: We are very creative, use sustainable seafood as much as we can, local seasonal produce, can accommodate allergies/dietary preferences and most of all “The OMAKASE Experience”. It’s a true honour to be able to create a dish on the spot that is one-of-a-kind based on what the customer feels like eating at that moment. It’s like being challenged in a black box cooking competition.

See Zen’s full menu at zensushi.ca

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